Consciousness Raising with Babies

“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” –Charles Baudelaire From Art in Theory 1815-1900

For anyone who has observed a very young child for any length of time, you quickly realize that babies and toddlers have a markedly different relationship with the world than most adults do. Where as adults often seem purposeful and directed in their actions, with exacting and deliberate outcome in mind, young children are often moving through flowing states of exploration–engaging and routinely disengaging focus as dictated by their whim, unable to delay gratification, and barely possessing the ability to convey complex emotions. All of which often make children appear to be largely unfocused and residing in a state of fluttering consciousness. Parents often see this trait as apparent immaturity, in comparison to their relative crystalline focus and single-mindedness.

A fascinating article by Jonah Lerher outlining new groundbreaking research, which ran in the Boston Globe last month, provides an entirely different picture of what we think we know about baby/toddler consciousness. According to the piece, unlike the adult mind, which restricts itself to a narrow slice of reality (thus allowing us the ability to achieve sustained focus), babies can take in a much wider spectrum of sensation. “They are” as the author states, “more aware of the world than we are.”

Rene Descartes famously argued that the young child was simply bound by sensation and hopelessly trapped in the confusing rush of the here and now, but as evidenced by the research sited in this article, the average baby brain contains more brain cells that the average adult brain. This renders an adult’s attention to function almost like that of a narrow spotlight illuminating very specific parts of reality, whereas with very young children it functions more along the lines of a lantern, illuminating the whole of their surroundings. This is precisely the reason why a child, while not being able to remember the name of a beloved family member, will (without being asked to) remember the color of the walls, the shape of the candy bowl, and the crack in the ceiling of that nameless relatives home. Basically, because children have yet to become to accustomed to all of the rules of the world, as well as the details they are expected to focus upon, they instead opt (by nature) to just take everything in.

Maybe it is just me, but I found the notion of this hyper-aware and open consciousness to be thoroughly intriguing as well as somewhat humbling. It is well known that adults, as high functioning as we can be, quickly loose the ability to experience life as a truly open and unbiased experience. We tend to compartmentalize, prejudge, and look at the world around us with an unyielding subjectivity.

Now, I am not going to resort to cheap romanticism and impracticality by stating that we should try to rewire our minds to perform and process the stimulus of the world like young children do (since we are all far too long gone). However, maybe the simple act of retraining how we observe our children’s interactions with the immediate world around them (now that we know they are firing way more neurons than we could imagine), could help open our minds to the newer side of old experiences.

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

Parenting at the Crossroads

21 comments

Jennifer C.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thanks.

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Kishore Amma
Kishore Amma4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Jo Asprec
Jo Asprec5 years ago

Let's see our world through the eyes of a child again! thanks for your thoughts!

K s Goh
KS Goh5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Subhash Joshi
Subhash Joshi7 years ago

Having read this interpretation of child behaviour/activity helps remove an old notion that children are less focussed - I should now say that while they take in everything, they are more focussed on what needs to be immediately. This is a great trait which we adults could also benefit from provided we retain this ability as we 'mature' without discarding all else that we come across in the course of our being.

Not ignoring all else around us is likely to make us more conscious of others and their feelings and help us shape our behaviour in a manner not to hurt anyone.

Didn't Shakespeare say ".... Child is the father of the man .... " ?? This has been quoted without any gender bias :).

Mikey S.
Mikey S.7 years ago

grown ups lose touch of the exploration that little children naturally have, by bringing structure and rules into play. to me this creates boredom and a loss of your childlike nature, which is needed to connect with mother earth.

Stephen L.
Past Member 7 years ago

So Child-Like Curiosity is a GOOD thing! Kind of reminds Me of that saying that "Scientists are People that never really grow up."

Mary Campbell
Mary Campbell7 years ago

Babies are not tethered to conceptions about the difference between fact and fantasy. For them, everything is possible. They don't have to interpret everything, to run it through a sieve of "reality." We adults would do well to follow their example, no?

Jessica Min
Jessica Min7 years ago

Thank you.